Pumpkins make history

It’s Halloween week. And all across America, you see pumpkins, carved or whole, sitting on front porches, stoops and fence posts as decoration. But they weren’t always relegated to the front stoop. For hundreds of years, men and women actually ate them…and not just in their pumpkin pie. In rural areas especially, pumpkins were easy to grow and a highly productive crop.

Pumpkins are actually a variety of squash. And they belong to the gourd or Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae) family. This enormous family of plants also includes zucchini and cucumbers.

Squash has a long history in the Americas. In fact, the English word for squash derives from the Natick and Narraganset Indians’ word askutasquash.

Some experts claim that squash first came to the Americas thousands of years ago from Asia. If they did all start out in Asia, people had to have transplanted them to the Americas at an early date. Perhaps early humans carried seeds with them from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Strait 50,000 years ago.

In early North America, squashes were among the first seeds planted by Indians in the spring and the last crops they harvested in the fall. These plants have a very long growing season–up to 125 days for winter varieties. By comparison, corn has a growing season of just 75 days.

In the Americas, men and women scooped out some varieties of squash and ate the “meat” of the vegetable. Other varieties they dried out and used the gourds as containers.

Native Americans also grew squash together with beans and corn. The beanstalks could grow up around the sturdier corn stalks, while squash and pumpkin vines spread along the ground among the corn. French explorer Samuel de Champlain described this sophisticated multi-cropping technique he saw being used by Native Americans in and around Quebec during the 1610s. This was even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

The Iroquois of the upper Northeast called this three-crop combination de-o-ha-ko or “Three Sisters.” And the Onondagas, who lived in today’s upstate New York, called these crops simply by the name “those we live on.” In modern times, we call combinations like this succotash (another Indian word). Especially in New England and New York state.

Indeed, Native Americans often cooked and served these three vegetables together. A half-cup of cooked pumpkin has about 40 calories. It also has a significant amounts of pre-vitamin A (alpha and beta-carotene), as well as vitamin C, iron and potassium. (When we performed the nutrient composition research at the USDA on vegetables that protect against cancer, I brought in some pumpkin, as well as red palm oil from West Africa, to find out what carotenoids are in them too.) The three plants also provide complementary nutrition in terms of protein, carbs, and essential amino acids.

Of course, pumpkins are the largest and most distinctive of all squashes in the gourd family. And at this time of year, you see them everywhere. But how did they transition from an essential, year-round food crop to mere seasonal decoration?